from the book
'War Scenes I Shall Never Forget'
By Carita Spencer

Depot des Eclopés, May, 1916

an American charity in France


With Mme. B------I went to visit one of the military depots around Paris, where every day at sunset hundreds of French soldiers assembled to march away to take their places beside their comrades in the trenches. Some had been home on leave, some were just discharged from hospitals, some had been given the privilege of the convalescent, and an occasional one was reporting for the first time. Once a day those called to return duty entrained for the front. During the preceding twenty-four hours they had arrived, singly and in company, from all directions, and had made themselves "comfortable" on the rough straw beds provided in the depot. They wore patched and faded uniforms, often those of their dead comrades. The government had supplied them with these uniforms and added what spare clothing it could and a few inadequate necessities, but no comforts.

Of course, we did not go empty-handed, for Mme. B------and her committee saw to it that no man went back to the front without his "comfort packet"—a little package containing a warm garment, perhaps a sweater, flannel drawers or a shirt, a cap, a muffler, socks and half a dozen useful little gifts of small value, such as razor, penknife, bit of string to tie his shoe, little mirror to admire himself in, writing paper, cigarettes, vermin destroyer, and such like. We loaded two motors with these packets and reached the depot an hour or so before the time for the men's departure.

It was all most interesting. The sentinels at the gate smiled a welcome for Mme. B------ and said the boys were expecting her.

We went into the big, barn-like barracks, where blue-coated poilus and khaki-clothed colonials sat or stood about in groups, sometimes silent, sometimes earnestly talking. Others rested apart, examining their equipment and repacking their knapsacks. Others slept on the straw, while some were buying most unwholesome looking doughnuts and consuming them without any attempt at chewing.

The bags of comfort packets were brought in and laid on a long table at one end of the barracks. Was there a rush and a push to be first served? Not a bit of it. With quiet interest the men waited to be invited and then came forward without elbowing each other. Every man received a packet, many of which had been made in far-away America. Just think for a moment what this little human touch of kindness meant at such a time. It was not the value of the gift, though the articles were often most useful. It was the spirit behind it which touched the man and not infrequently brought a tear of emotion to his eye. He had left home in all probability for the last time, for no man really expects to return from the trenches these days. What a worth-while kind of courage this almost commonplace courage of the soldier of to-day is! We need not imagine that he does not think. He knows what this war means to him and his. It is that ever-present spirit of simple, unquestioning, determined self-sacrifice which verily awes one each time it is encountered.

With the interest of children, the men took their packets, saluted their thanks and stepped aside to examine the prizes they had drawn. It was amusing and pathetic to watch them. The seasoned veteran with the tired eyes over in the corner heaved an almost audible sigh of satisfaction. He had drawn a muffler, just what he needed, and the bit t of soap and the very handy jack-knife were not to be disdained. The boy near him was more or less amused by his present. He felt too well equipped to need anything, for he was going out to beat the Bodies for the first time. A tough-looking, healthy fellow standing by the table opened his parcel and drew a rubber poncho. At his side stood a pale-faced man with glasses and the unmistakable stamp of education on his face. He looked longingly at the poncho and tightened the muffler around his neck. Then after a moment's hesitation he turned to me and asked if it would be possible for him to have one of those, even if he paid for it. I did not know where to find one in the few remaining packets, and as I hesitated his comrade turned and said, "But you take it, my friend. I can get along without it. I have slept in the fields all my life. You belong to the city. Take it and may it bring you luck." That is typical of the spirit of the men.

The packets distributed, there remained huge boxes of candy and cigarettes. I took the cigarettes and went among the men, talking as I offered them. I was so eager to understand their point of view that I permitted myself to ask a rather cruel question. "How do you feel when, like to-day, you are going back to the front?" The replies were all alike in spirit. "It is our duty!" "We do not think of the future, but only to do our duty now!" "The Boches must be beaten!" "France comes first!" Of course, out of the many I here and there received a flippant answer, but the majority were simple, direct, resigned.

In one corner three jolly fellows were having a home-made lunch before they left. They insisted that I taste it. It was the best sausages in the world that "la femme" had made as a parting gift, and wrapped up with hard brown bread. The fingers that handled it and the knife that cut it were not appetizing, but we made gay together.

I came to a red-fezzed, black-faced son of Africa, handsome as a Greek god, neat and trim in his khaki uniform three times decorated. He must have seen action to have acquired three crosses, so I made bold to ask him what of all his experiences stood out most vividly in his memory. He smiled rather tolerantly as he answered that I would probably be disappointed when he told me that it was the dinner party he and three of his comrades had offered to four Germans who came during a lull to visit their trench. I looked puzzled, so he went on to explain. "The trenches were so close together we could almost shake hands. It was a pitch black night and we heard the Boches complaining that they were hungry. We whispered to them to come over and we would give them a treat. It took them a long time to get up their courage. Finally we felt rather than saw them coming, and suddenly they tumbled into our trench. We gave them all we had, and how those fellows ate! It was a joy to see them! And, do you know, they just managed to get back to their own trench when we had orders to attack!"

He had hardly finished speaking when the bugle sounded the call to fall in. The men shouldered their packs, heavy packs they looked, with tin cans and paper parcels tied on with string. The roll was called, and when the last man was marked present the bugle sounded again. No boomaladdie parade this, with shining boots and brass band. Two by two in sloppy formation they dragged their well-worn boots along. There was a stoop to most shoulders, even to the young ones, but the spirit was all right. I studied the faces as they passed and I tried to realize where they were going and blindly sought to understand why. There was a smile of good-by from most and perhaps an additional "Merci bien, Madame!" Or if not a smile, then something that made me feel the greatness of each one of these human beings, willingly offering himself a sacrifice.

by the same author
see also War Scenes in Belgium

an American charity for wounded French soldiers


Back to Index